Study: Sexual Assaults Lower in Neighborhoods With More Registered Sex Offenders

geography_victimization

Sex offender registries are premised on the belief that there is a correlation between re-offense and victim proximity. The underlying assumption is that more sexual assaults will occur in places where sex offenders live. In an effort to curb offending rates, policymakers have enacted legislation which allows the public to be notified of nearby sex offenders. The hope is that in knowing where sexual offenders live we can employ protective measures and reduce the risk of a sexual assault.

New research investigates whether this correlation is empirically valid by analyzing registrant address information in Baltimore County, Maryland. The study, entitled Sex Offender Laws and the Geography of Victimization, reports that sexual assaults are actually lower in neighborhoods with more registered sex offenders.

The authors gathered data from reported crimes in Baltimore County, Maryland and “both the current and past home addresses of all RSOs.” Their data was unique in that Baltimore made notification available to the public in 2002, which allowed the authors to trace pre- and post-notification patterns of sexual assault. The researchers set out to answer two questions:

First, we examine whether areas where more RSOs reside experience more sex crime relative to areas with fewer resident RSOs. Although the picture is complicated, we find evidence of a generally negative relationship: locations with more RSOs experience relatively fewer sex offense incidents, an empirical pattern starkly at odds with public perceptions and the key assumption underlying sex offender notification laws. Second, we explore whether broad public knowledge of the identity and location of RSOs alters the relationship between the number of sex offenders living in an area and the risk of victimization in that neighborhood, exploiting the fact that the Maryland Sex Offender Registry became searchable online during our sample period. Unexpectedly, we find evidence that public awareness of resident RSOs may increase the relative number of certain reported sex crimes in those areas with relatively more resident RSOs.

The authors note that the results are

…quite surprising given the seemingly commonsense and intuitive assumption that living near an RSO has simply got to make the risk of becoming a victim higher, not lower, and the equally natural idea that notifying the public of where RSOs live can only make their neighbors safer. Our findings also raise important questions for future research, including why sex offense victimization risk appears to increase with respect to some types of crime when notification publicly identifies RSOs, and how policymakers should respond to this unexpected possibility.

This research undermines the existence of sex offender registries given that they are premised on public safety, especially in light of evidence that most offenders are registered for their first and only crime (see Sex Panic and the Punitive State by Roger Lancaster). We need to remind ourselves that offenders aren’t just red dots on a map. They are people. People who made a mistake and are forever reminded of it. As this research supports, you cannot look at a dot on the map and determine they are more risky than another dot. More to the point, some people are not dots yet.

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